False Memory Syndrome: Are we all victims of it?

My strongest and most vivid memories are false! It’s rare that we can ever reconstruct what “really” happened, but in two cases, I saw clearly, not through the glass darkly.

The earlier vignette is a story I shared proudly and often of an interaction with my father. He died when I was 10, having become frail and sickly (that’s what having a stomach and esophagus removed will do) the latter 3 years. My memory shows me an image: Big, healthy Dad, standing in front of his big and healthy bookcase, selects a giant hardback novel. Presenting it to me–age 7–with a proud smile, he says: “Gone With the Wind’ is an adult book, but you’re a strong reader.” ‘

I was so proud of this memory, and I did in fact read the one thousand-plus page book, wetting the later pages with my tears. Reading was glue in my Daddy-daughter relationship. I was a shy girl, comfortable around him and around books. Our weekly (maybe) arm-laden trips to the library, followed by a Green River ice cream soda, were our special deal. (I slid down memory lane when Green River soda was re-issued some twenty years back. Undrinkable! Another shock to my memory.)

Two years ago I was struck by a “NewYorker” author’s false memory. (I forgot who–maybe Jill LePore?) She recalled her Dad reading a certain novel to her at bedtime, using voice changes and other delightful reader’s tricks. When clearing his bookshelves after his death, she discovered the fondly remembered volume. The publication date proved that the work wasn’t in print until after her father’s death.

I was stunned. I have a very smart and savvy 11-year-old granddaughter, more socially advanced at age 7 than I could have been. She transitioned from picture books to chapter books around that age. No book was a thousand pages of dense text. Had she been able to visually process my special book, the characters and complex plot would have meant nothing to her. Civil war? Adultery? The South in the time of Slavery?Of course, I didn’t read “Gone with the Wind” at age 7, nor 8, nor 10, either. Seems I confounded a favorite book with a favorite lost parent, both connected with pride in my reading skills.,

The second head slapper has a false memory date of 1967; I was in high school. This scene has a socially relevant theme—a Black Lives Matter story.

In my imagination, my younger sister’s high school is being integrated, something so anxiety provoking for whites and Blacks during the ’60’s that whole neighborhoods, cities, and states trembled. I drive to the school to protect little sister against the threatened violence; my memory doesn’t provide detail on how I planned to accomplish that. I see two little scared girls–Black (though I know that isn’t the identity name of those years)–in party frocks walk up the front stairs. They walked though fear and hatred–and spittle!- with police all around.

I just shared this memory with said sister last week. She gave it to me straight: “My high school was integrated long before 1967. Your memory is false.” Of course, I realized immediately the remembered girls were too young for high school. Besides, girls no longer wore frilly frocks.

With the scales off my eyes, I suddenly was able to place the video of two scared Black girls integrating a very unwelcoming white elementary school: a television image from 1957. President Eisenhower sent federal troops to Little Rock, Arkansas, after the Brown v. Board of Education Supreme Court decision.

The movie camera memory now shifts back to that TV report. If this part of the story is any more accurate than the earlier version, I “see” that my sister and I are watching our TV (we had only one, black and white–this memory is verifiably true) from the family room sofa with our black live-in-maid.* I hear her say: “Why is it we’re OK to take care of white folks children, but our children can’t go to school with their children?” My consciousness was raised–but not nearly enough. I was 10.

My awareness of the shifting sands of my own memory informs my work with clients. How do we partner to revisit their memories, what is the function of those memories, and how do we engage with memories that destroy family relationships (molestation being the most prominent example)? More in succeeding posts.


* The family systems therapist Monica McGoldrick describes her family of origin as a “bi-racial family”: parents, siblings (all white) and a Black live-in maid. Talk about consciousness raising!


I help adults and adolescents through the particular struggles of our time: tension between couples, parenting frustration, blending new families, separation and divorce, (un)employment, cancer, and loss. When relationships come to an impasse, I use mediation techniques to try to ensure that each party will have his/her needs heard and accounted for in a dignified way. In addition to talking, listening, and reframing, I utilizes the tools of metaphor, active teaching, role-playing, visualization, and hypnotherapy.for families and businesses, as well as in cases of divorce.